Stocks end mixed. Best first quarter since 1998.
Stocks closed out the quarter with the Dow gaining 742 points, its biggest first-quarter point gain in more than a decade and its biggest percentage gain since 1994.
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Stocks posted the best first quarter in more than a decade, although the last day of the quarter was fairly lackluster, with stocks dropping just before the close in another low-volume session.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 30.88 points, or 0.25 percent, to close at 12,319.73, the worst level of the session. For the quarter, the blue-chip index rose 742.22 points, or 6.4 percent, the best first quarter point gain since 1998 when it gained 891.56 points, and the best first quarter percent gain since 1994, when it rose 6.6 percent.
The S&P 500 fell 2.43 points, or 0.18 percent, to close at 1,325.83. For the quarter, the broad market index gained 68.19 points, or 5.4 percent, the best percent and point gain in the first quarter since 1998.
The Nasdaq gained 4.28 points, or 0.15 percent, to close at 2,781.07. For the quarter, the tech-heavy index gained 128.20 points, or 4.8 percent.
The CBOE Volatility Index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, traded at about 17.70, largely unchanged.
Among key S&P 500 sectors, materials and industrials rose, while financialsand consumer discretionary fell.
Late in the session, the VIX started to fluctuate, indicating some concern on the part of investors ahead of the March unemployment report. "We know [the jobs report] is coming out and we may not know what direction it’s going to go," Randy Frederick, head of trading and derivatives at Charles Schwab said.
At current levels—below 18—Frederick is concerned the VIX isn't registering the amount of uncertainty that should be in the market as a result of the unfolding events in Libya, the Middle East, and Europe.
"I think 18 is a realistic bottom threshold," he said. "We have a lot of things going on."
While the market has had a strong year so far, stocks are unlikely to post double-digit gains because of the geopolitical risks, as well as the threat of looming inflation in the U.S., said Frank Fantozzi, CEO of Planned Financial Services, an LPL Independent Wealth Manager in Cleveland, Ohio.
"That's what’s preventing the market from having a gangbuster year," Fantozzi said.
Volatility is likely to continue because many current concerns aren't resolved, and that will keep stocks rangebound, but Fantozzi expects by year-end, the market will have moved up by "high single digits."
"One of the primary reasons is the financial balance sheets of these companies are the strongest they’ve been in 30 years. They are all very healthy, very strong," he said.
Also, he said, the employment picture is getting better, citing falling jobless claims, and the robust private sector employment report by ADP on Wednesday. The government will release March nonfarm payroll data on Friday. Economists surveyed by Reuters expect the economy added less than 200,000 jobs in March.